Opinion: It’s past time scientists admitted their COVID mistakes

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Americans’ trust in scientists has plummeted in the years since the pandemic, according to a Pew poll released this month. In the year In 2019, only 13 percent of Americans said they did not trust scientists to protect the public interest. Now that figure is 27% – despite recent breakthroughs in astronomy, cancer research, genetics and other fields.

It is reasonable to assume that the problem stems from the public health mistakes of the Covid-19 era. It took years for some public health agencies to accept what quickly became clear that the virus was airborne. Others have suggested precautionary measures, including closing playgrounds and beaches, which may have little benefit. Introduce some policies, such as continued social exclusion, that are difficult to implement and sustain – even for prominent epidemiologists.

Public health researchers and officials think that rebuilding trust is a matter of clearer and more persuasive communication. That helps, but it’s not enough – they have to admit their mistakes.

It was an unwillingness to do so. I attended an international meeting on epidemic prevention at Boston University last week, and the communication panel did not delve into the pandemic’s fallacies. When I asked experts about the various policies and statements that seemed wrong in retrospect, I got a chorus of “we don’t know” – an unsatisfying answer.

Sandro Gallia, dean of public health at Boston University, examines what’s wrong with public health in his new book, “Within Reason: Liberal Public Health for Illiberal Times,” to be published Friday.

In an interview, Galia told me that his reluctance to talk about such mistakes comes from a place of security – the fear of betraying the other side is similar to former President Donald Trump here. Public health officials are rightly frustrated by Trump’s incredible bombast. But the answer is not to appear infallible.

In the year In January and early February 2020, the American public health community was making unforced errors. Evidence that this disease is wreaking havoc in China and spreading around the world is increasing week by week. Health officials should have been scrambling to prepare hospitals and nursing homes, create tests that worked, and develop contact tracing and virus-tracing systems. They had to warn people about possible future business and school closings.

Perhaps it is wrong to expect people to trust scientists when trust in so many institutions has collapsed. (Scientists are still more reliable than journalists.) However, science works because scientific methods were developed to turn the work of fallible people into reliable and useful knowledge.

The double-blind clinical trial is a clever antidote to our biases and our humanity of seeing what we want rather than what really is. That’s why I got the covid vaccine – not because I uncritically believe Anthony Fauci.

The same level of evidence does not support the implementation of vaccination mandates, and some institutions have exceeded reasonable evidence by requiring staff and students to receive second and third booster vaccinations for very low risk of serious disease.

This public health surplus has gone into the pockets of already irrational paranoia, giving new power to gurus on YouTube who say the government is covering up deadly vaccine side effects — as well as the “real” cure for Covid, UFO aliens, and possible conspiracies to get rid of everyone’s property. Some conspiracy theories point to a flaw in the idea that scientists — or at least people with the right degrees — should trust the entire profession.

So perhaps the best we can hope for is that you put more faith in scientists who draw on that great body of established knowledge and come up with new knowledge as they accumulate more evidence. And we should trust them not necessarily to protect the interests of the people, but to work in pursuit of the truth.

FD Flam is a Bloomberg opinion columnist covering science. She is the host of the “Follow the Science” podcast.

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